YEI, Sudan – The village of Yei in southern Sudan is finally rebuilding after more than 20 years of civil war with the Arab north.
Once not much more than a ruin, Yei (search) is actually one of the better-off towns — it has 3,600 businesses today compared to less than half that a few years ago. Still, children play and climb among the rusting military tanks that litter the roadsides, villagers make due in a hospital that still shows signs of the war — pockmarks in the walls and crumbling columns.
Some of the villagers — including children — are missing limbs stolen by the live landmines that still maim and kill.
While the world's attention has been focused on the genocide ravaging the Darfur region of Sudan (search), the humanitarian crisis that has claimed 50,000 lives so far is not the only one to consume the country. Two decades of civil war between the Arab north and the Christian and black tribal south has killed two million people and devastated southern Sudan.
"The war has lost many people, it has lost many cattle," said Peter Neil, a Somali worker building roads in southern Sudan with U.S. funding. "Actually, it has devastated the whole area."
A U.S.-supported cease-fire has for now quelled the fighting, but it is an uneasy peace threatened by the volatile, and largely unresolved, ethnic, religious and economic issues that fueled the conflict.
North vs. South
The southern Sudanese, who took up arms against the northern Arab government as the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (search), said the war was inevitable. Tribal blacks lived in abject poverty while the government helped the Arab north prosper. The striking contrast between the north and south bears this out.
In the south, people live in mud huts without electricity, paved roads, adequate schools or health care. There has been little infrastructure — no airports, public transportation or thoroughfares. But roads are being built for the first time, helping refugees to return home. In northern Sudan, particularly in the city of Khartoum (search), Arabs live in relative comfort, with modern schools and hotels, paved roads and electricity.
As it has been in Darfur, the northern Arab government's response to the southern tribal rebels was harsh and severe. Khartoum branded the insurgency a "holy war," using the conflict to recruit Islamic Sudanese fighters to spread Islam to the south. The government imposed Sharia (Islamic) law on the south, sentencing the area's black Christians and moderate Muslims to extreme Sharia penalties such as amputations.
The south, however, has fiercely resisted what it calls "Arabization," attracting worldwide support from Christians outraged at the reports of forced Islamic conversions and the government's condoning of slavery. Even the south's Muslim minority opposes the Islamization of southern Sudan because they practice a more moderate form of Islam.
"They think we are just black Africans and Arab blood is more pure than ours," said Gov. Samuel Abujohn, regional secretary for the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement.
In addition to the religious conflicts, language and education remain battleground issues. The tribes in the south have been denied education and object to being forced to speak Arabic.
"If you are Arab, they can educate you. If you are not Arab, you are not considered a human being," a southern teacher said. "We are not Arab, so we have the right to learn whatever language we need. That's all we want."
The teachers want children to learn English. "English is the language of technology," the teacher said.
Under the cease-fire established by the Naivasha Permanent Cease-Fire Arrangement (search), the south enjoys limited self-rule and is allowed to practice its own religion and customs. But, some southern towns are designated contested areas, and the northern government occasionally attempts to assert control.
Eyes on Darfur
The southern Sudanese also are keeping a close watch on Darfur. They believe the Darfur crisis is the new front in the government's campaign to "Arabize" Sudan. The leadership in the south hopes that a power-sharing arrangement recently struck with the northern government can serve as a template for peace negotiations in Darfur.
But in small villages like Yei, the rebuilding is slow, and the long and brutal war still casts a long shadow. The ruins are a constant reminder of how government forces, in an attempt to drive the villagers from their town, repeatedly bombed the hospital, killing scores of people. Many villagers did leave, fleeing to Uganda, making the 90-mile journey on foot.
However, the people have found hope in the global attention their plight has finally received, especially in the United States.
"The American people know what is happening in southern Sudan," said Andrew Natsios, administrator for USAID, speaking to a group of Sudanese. Natsios said Sudan is a foreign policy priority of the Bush administration. "In America, every Sunday, our priests and pastors tell the people what is happening in Sudan and the war."